A Titanic voyage – sans iceberg

Roger and Debbie Pennington are in formal garb circa 1912 for the Captain’s Dinner on the commemorative cruise marking the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Roger Pennington

Roger and Debbie Pennington are in formal garb circa 1912 for the Captain’s Dinner on the commemorative cruise marking the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic.

Millions saw the Academy Award-winning movie, and on April 15, millions upon millions took a moment to commemorate the centennial of the sinking of the most famous ship in the world. But one Bayfield couple took it even farther.

Roger and Debbie Pennington boarded the Balmoral to retrace the Titanic’s voyage (minus the close encounter with an iceberg, of course). One hundred years had passed for the great ship, and it was a two-and-a-half-year journey for the Penningtons.

The story is running in June because May is a busy month in Neighbors and, also known as La Plata County, and I didn’t have time until now to have a real conversation with them.

Debbie Pennington has been fascinated by the tragedy, the people who were lost and the whole emotional drama for more than 15 years. (Yes, before the James Cameron film.)

She has what she calls a “Titanic crate,” with books, newspaper clippings, copies of several Titanic movies, and now, memorabilia from the cruise. She has seen the Cameron film more than 200 times, wearing out one VHS tape and more than one DVD. For many of those screenings, her grandson Steven Stebnitz was her fellow enthusiast, starting when he was 6.

So when she read a small story in the Herald about the death of the last survivor of the Titanic, Millvina Dean, in May 2009, Pennington went online to read the article in the London Times, which mentioned the commemorative cruise. It only took a day to make the decision.

She booked two tickets, then said to her husband, “I hope you’re coming with me.”

While he says he likes his ice frozen – Roger Pennington is the president of the San Juan Sledders Snowmobile Club – he went along pretty good-naturedly with the “Titanic nuts,” as he calls them.

A member of the Victorian Aid Society, Debbie’s first thought was, “What will I wear?” About 13 outfits, it turns out, with day and evening dresses for each day at sea plus the only 1912 swimming dress on board. Her arrival at the hot tub in the swimsuit got her photographed in a shot seen round the world when Reuters picked it up. (Search Debbie Pennington Reuters to check out the shot.)

Roger, too, was dressed in period garb for much of the voyage, including an ensemble just like that worn by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack Dawson, an authentic tuxedo from the era and a bowler hat and suspenders.

While many passengers dressed circa 1912 for the Captain’s Dinner, the Penningtons were among a smaller group who stayed in character throughout. In addition to her swimsuit photo, they were interviewed by Polish television, the BBC and another foreign television channel, probably Italian. (It’s hard to keep track when you’re a media sensation.)

While I’m on the subject of dinner, the menus are treasured souvenirs from the experience. Each meal included dishes that would have been served in all of the classes aboard, with selections such as sirloin steak with mustard sauce or roast lamb with strawberry-mint gravy from first class or curried chicken with rice or Irish stew with dumplings from second class. As you might imagine, the steerage offerings were much more simple, including cabbage au gratin or rice soup with root vegetables.

The cruise originally scheduled the exact same meal served in first class on April 14, 1912, for the evening of April 14, 2012, but upon reflection, decided that would be too much like a party on a night that should focus more on somber reflection.

So they served the meal on April 13, and it was a doozy in seven courses: quail eggs in aspic with caviar; consommé Olga, a clear beef broth with cucumbers and scallops; asparagus salad; punch Romaine, a palate cleanser containing simple syrup, champagne, white wine, freshly squeezed orange juice and lemon juice; Calvados-roasted duck and filet mignon; Waldorf pudding; and a fruit and cheese tray. The recipe for Waldorf pudding is lost to time, but the R.M.S. Olympic served a Waldorf pudding in 1914 that was a vanilla pudding with a hint of nutmeg, diced apples and Sultana grapes.

The Balmoral was hours late pulling into Cobh, Ireland (pronounced Cove), the final port of call for the Titanic, after a night of heavy seas that included 30-foot waves. More than 5,000 people had gathered earlier at the docks, at the scheduled time, but 2,000 had waited on during the delay. Many sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle went down with the Titanic, and many more were connected through the building of the ship in Belfast, so it was an emotional time for all.

Of course, the ceremonies on the night of the 14th and early on April 15 were powerful, including a reading of the names of all 1,500-plus lost, a memorial service with a lot of hymns, and after three blasts of the ship’s horn and that of another ship, the Azamara, which sailed to the site from New York City, wreaths for those lost in the sinking were lowered to the sea.

Did you know that so many people have thrown mementos overboard at the Titanic site that the water is quite polluted? The Balmoral had to get special permission and assure authorities that their wreaths would be biodegradable to do this. I also didn’t know that scientists think the entire Titanic will dissolve in the next 50 years or so because of bacteria in the water.

Just a month before the Penningtons’ trip, the identity of the Unknown Child, whose body was recovered because his coat trapped air after the sinking. It turned out one of the men who helped retrieve bodies had saved the 2-year-old’s shoes for a possible identification, not knowing that the entire family had died in the disaster. When the rescuers descendants found the shoes in the attic and asked the Maritime Museum if they wanted them, the possibilities of an identification opened up nearly a century later using the latest in technology.

DNA tests confirmed the toddler as Sidney Goodwin. No one came to claim him because none of his family survived. He is now buried with his parents and five brothers and sisters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

I’m not going to get into a scientific debate over global warming, so hold your calls and emails, but one fact that most struck Roger Pennington was the difference in temperatures from April 15, 1912. The water that fateful night was minus 2 degrees Celsius or 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and most of the people who died perished from hypothermia. This year, the temperature was 14 degrees Celsius, or 57 degrees Fahrenheit.

The weather on the 14th was dreary, raining and gray. But during the ceremony on deck, the sky was clear, the stars shining bright and the sea calm. It might be wishful thinking, but I’m with Debbie Pennington. Someone greater than us was also marking the occasion.

If you want to see more about the memorial cruise, check out YouTube and search Titanic memorial cruise.

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Enjoying perfect June days for their birthdays are Sue Marshall, Gerri Wilson, Bob Pitmon, Barbara Pevny, Brady Sutherland, William Hakes, Tony Santistevan, Casey Carman, Bill Collins, Zoa Huckins, Nancy Furry, TracyZellitti, Pat May, John Kirchner, Ron McKay, Amie Hotter, Kelly Becker, LaurenCotgageorge, Chris Dunker, Marjorie Appel,John DeLeo, Ethan Ryan, Michael Fusco, Nancy Stevens, Tom Williamson, Lauren Wolfe, Myriam Palmer, Diane Rabeno, Sue Hampton, Jade Latham, Carter Reiter, CorbinReiter, Kaitlin McCullogh, Michael Abeyta, Austin Brown, Hans Hartman, MicMcGrath, Finn McGrath, Phyllis Stone and Ann Fairley.

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I usually write about other people’s adventures being chronicled in magazines, but this time the story is a little more personal.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from my nephew Andy Miller telling me my father – his grandfather – was featured in the magazine America in World War II.

I need to clarify a tricky family tree here. This was my birth father, Lt. Col. John French McGaughey, who commanded the 145th Engineer Combat Battalion under Gen. George Patton.

He died when I was 2, and my mother’s second husband, Charlie Butler, adopted me when I was 3, hence the Butler surname. Miller is the son of Mary Jo, McGaughey’s daughter from his first marriage who was 20 years older than I and died when I was 16. There’s no one living who can tell us much about “French” as he was known, just as my nephew and I are learning about a fascinating chapter in his history.

Miller found some sketches about the famous “Kilroy was Here” in McGaughey’s war scrapbook and learned the magazine was running a feature on the graffiti, as it were, about the drawings left wherever American soldiers served.

The 145th left a lot of clever Kilroy was Here drawings both on the bridges they blew up to deny their usage to the Germans and the ones they rebuilt for the Allies. They spoofed everything from Parisian street bathrooms to Westerns and took a swipe at the ubiquitous powered eggs. Many of the drawings are reproduced in the piece.

It’s the June edition, and I got the last copy from Magpie’s Newsstand. I was unable to access the story on the magazine’s website, so most of you won’t get to see it, but it’s still pretty cool, if I do say so myself.

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The roses are starting to bloom for the anniversaries of Carl and Jodell Johnson, Don and Kay Baker, Donovan and Deanna Schardt, Charles and CarolGordon, Bill and Mary Foreman, Jim and Susan Schaldach, Brian and Nancy Van Mols, David and Diann Wylie, Chris and Sue Hampton, Mark and Donna Bauer, John and Emily TerMaat,Dave and Connie Trautmann, Mike and SueJohnson, Robert and Jackie Manning, Bruce and Sue Kuhn and Scott and Amy McClellan.

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Here’s how to reach me: neighbors@durangoherald.com; phone 375-4584; mail items to the Herald; or drop them off at the front desk. Please include contact names and phone numbers for all items.